The 2014-15 season of the
Under new coach Marlene Stollings, the Gophers came into the season with justifiably robust expectations. In senior guard Rachel Banham, the team boasted a 5-9 playmaker who was named the Big 10 preseason player of the year and is projected to be a first-round pick in the WNBA draft at the conclusion of her college career.
But in the tenth game of the season, at
This potentially devastating development has actually kicked the Gophers’ feel-good story up another notch. The team rallied around its fallen leader, unveiling Buckets For Banham t-shirts during warm-ups before the next contest, a sudden tradition that has occurred every game since then.
Although the team finished the non-conference portion of the season 11-1, ten of those twelve games were with Banham. Few gave the Gophers much chance against 12th-ranked
Just like that, the Gophers were national news. They had won ten in a row to boost their record to 14-1. They were nationally ranked for the first time since 2006, voted 23rd in the Associated Press poll. Their next matchup was against 8th ranked Maryland, whose coach, Brenda Frese (nee Oldfield), had won national Coach of the Year honors in 2002 while guiding a Gophers team led by Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville into the NCAA tournament.
Although they lost, 77-73, the fact that the Gophers had taken heralded
They went on the road and beat
Next up on the schedule was Purdue, an opponent the Gophers had thumped by double-digits on the road in
Even so, Purdue came into the game with an RPI ranking (which factors strength-of-schedule into its calibrations) in the top 50, a pair of athletic guards and a deadly midrange shooter. They shot 61 percent while registering 50 points in the first half, leading by as many as 15 before withstanding a Gophers rally to win in overtime, 90-88.
Three days later, the Gophers traveled to
Strengths and weaknesses
The star power of Banham and the temptation to magnify the resilient spirit of the rest of the team in her absence obscures the reality that the Gophers boast plenty of talent even without their best player.
Begin with Swedish center Amanda Zahui B, a hulking 6-5 sophomore with surprisingly quick and silky moves on offense, a near-unstoppable force in the low post who can also step outside and bury jumpers with a deft shooter’s touch.
Zahui B led the Big 10 in rebounding as a freshman and is an intimidating shot-blocker based on her towering size alone. But it is on offense where she has shone elite ability, especially in the absence of Banham. In the last two games alone, she made all eleven of her shot attempts versus Purdue and posted 36 points against
Zahui B’s frontcourt mate is 6-1 forward Shae Kelley, a fifth-year senior who decided to spend an extra year in college honing her basketball skills after being named to the 2014 All-Conference USA First Team at Old Dominion. Kelley’s locker room leadership and steadying presence has been especially important since Banham’s injury. She combines quickness and savvy at both ends of the court, with an excellent Euro-step enabling her dribble penetration. Like Zahui B, she currently ranks among the top ten in scoring in the Big 10.
The swingman is 5-10 freshman Carlie Wagner, who averaged 37 points per game her senior year in high school at New Richland, the second-highest total in Minnesota women’s prep history. She may also be the team’s top conditioned athlete.
Rounding out the starting five is a pair of juniors in the backcourt, 5-10 point guard Shayne Mullaney and 5-9 three-point specialist Mikayla Bailey, both Academic All Americans.
Even without Banham, this group is potent enough to rank fourth in the Big 10 in scoring. The problem is a lack of depth and backcourt athleticism, both of which factor into a scoring defense that ranks 11th among the fourteen Big 10 teams.
When Coach Stollings took over for the fired Pam Borton during the off-season, she knew she had to hedge against the inevitable fatigue that comes from playing the high-powered, uptempo offense she prefers. This was especially salient because the team didn’t have a lot of depth, and because the bulwark of the defense, the 6-5 Zahui B, was prone to get into foul trouble.
In response, Stollings instituted a matchup zone defensive scheme, which requires less overt physical exertion than man-to-man coverages, but demands greater awareness, communication and teamwork in order to function efficiently. Stolling upped the ante by tinkering with the zone schemes according to the advance scouting report on the next opponent. This compels her team to learn new wrinkles on a discipline that already requires ad hoc adjustments and judgments.
When the defense works, as against
But the loss of the athletic Banham may be more acute at the defensive end of the floor. Both Mullaney and Bailey are smart and experienced enough to adapt to the schemes out on the perimeter, but they are routinely going up against at least one, and sometimes two, superior athletes initiating the opponents’ offense. And while Wagner is athletic, her inexperience occasionally is unearthed via blown assignments.
The weakness of the Gophers’ matchup zone is often the seam between the perimeter wing players and the larger players down in the post. Quickness off the dribble and rapid ball-movement forces the perimeter players to overcommit, opening up the seam for a player to flash down to the short corner or the sweet spot about 15 feet directly in front of the basket. Unless Kelley or Zahui B is especially adept at coming out to contest, that is a makeable open midrange jumper.
It just so happens that both Purdue and
While Pam Borton had some notable success during her 12-year stint in
Stollings came from
“I am trying very hard to give them a belief in themselves, knowing we believe in them and what we want them to do. And we do believe in them — there is nothing fake about that.
“They have amazed me in the way they have come together in the absence of Rachel,” Stollings continues. “I tell them every day that I am proud to coach them. They have some of the intangibles that great teams have that don’t really come from a coach. Their camaraderie is just so solid.”
But now that camaraderie and internal confidence is being put to the test. It is very likely that the Gophers surprised themselves, at least a little bit, by how well they responded to Banham’s injury. But that was a challenge brought on by outside forces beyond their control. The season’s first two-game losing streak needs to provoke a different type of belief and resilience.
The Gophers are now one of three teams clumped at 5-3 in the Big 10 behind
But after that, the Gophers finish with a rugged four-game slate that includes two games versus
At it currently stands, it seems likely that the team will perform well enough to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. But a chance to host a tournament as one of the top 16 seeds — a possibility before the last two defeats — now feels like a longshot that would almost require the team to either run the table on the regular season or perform well deep into the Big 10 tournament.
A bright future
Either way, the Gopher women’s basketball program is suddenly on very firm footing. Last week, Banham delighted the U of M faithful by announcing that she would return for another season (eligible because of her injury), turning down the chance to turn pro in the WNBA next year. Meanwhile, Zahui B will be back for her junior year, giving the Gophers the likelihood of two future first-round picks in the WNBA for the first time since the heyday of Whalen and McCarville.
Among the current starters, only Kelley is a departing senior. And to beef up the depth and athleticism in the backcourt, former DeLaSalle standout Allina Starr, a 5-10 guard, has transferred from
Starr is already working out with the team. Her presence addresses another criticism of Borton, which is that the former coach rarely recruited prized prep players from the Twin Cities urban area.
Add Starr to Banham, Zahui B, Wagner and others, plus Stollings reputation as a recruiter, and the feel-good vibe permeating Gopher women’s basketball may continue to blossom — without the part about overcoming adversity.